Tahar Ben Jelloun
If intellectuals of Muslim faith or culture had the courage today to speak out putting forward Tahar Ben Jelloun’s arguments, not only we would advance in the cultural and political battle against Islamist terror, but we also would leave less scope to those who, in Europe and the United States, seek to create a climate of fear and suspicion toward Muslims.
In his book Le terrorisme expliqué à nos enfants, Ben Jelloun addresses directly young people, through an imaginary dialogue with his daughter, as he is aware that first of all it is a matter of defeating a worldview that, like all ideologies, can create false myths among youths. To our children we must tell the truth: they need words chosen carefully, it is not only the well chosen subtitle of the book (in its Italian translation), but it also represents a greatly intellectually honest way of thinking.
Unless we face all troublesome truths and have no clear perception of the complexity of this phenomenon – suggests the writer of Moroccan descent – it will be hardly possible to win over people’s fear.
People are not only scared because terrorists hit randomly all places of our civil lives, from the squares to the markets, as well as theatres, underground stations and airports, but also because they fail to understand what the possible antidotes to stem a seemingly endless spiral of violence could be like.
In facts it is the moment of understanding that enable us to “accept reality with all what it has of unforeseen and unbearable” – as often wrote Pierre Hadot, a great scholar of Stoic philosophy –and brings us relief because it can make us see the possible way to defeat this new radical evil that is upsetting the world.
Ben Jelloun explains his daughter that we should not treat terrorists “as if they were crazy, psychotics or schizophrenics”, but we should instead take very seriously their way of thinking. They in fact act with clear and well defined goals. They kill people randomly in the places of our joyful civil life because they do not think they are hitting innocents, but individuals guilty of leading an unreligious life. Their reference point is often the Islamic state, but their mission goes beyond an ideal reference to the Caliphate, as they feel as they were the long reach of the Prophet, acting to awe and punish our society, in sight of a global expansion of Islam, which should silence that which to them is the decadent life of the West.
The new life should thus in their opinion arise from a punishment, a sort of an Islamic apocalypse, whose effects will not be grasped in life after death.
Ben Jelloun is outspoken at fighting back the idea that these are abnormal or disturbed people. “Crazy is the one who is not responsible for what he does, while the terrorists are conscious people, trained by specialists to murder and get murdered”.
Nothing to do, hence, with the banality of evil described by Arendt, who portrayed the behavious of the common people who gave up thought and responsibility when they committed the most heinous crimes.
Terrorists in fact feel no shame whatsoever at killing human beings, as they are convinced, as philosopher Tzvetan Todorov would say, that their actions are planned for good. They not only stifle any kind of compassion toward their targeted victims, but they consciously choose suicide as they feel the duty to carry out a mission. They are willing executioners who little before dying love to tell in the social network about the targets of their actions.
Ben Jelloun, in an uncensored manner, replies to his daughter’s questions, explaining how Muslims, if they want to oppose the terrorist phenomenon from its very roots, shall look at those skeletons in the cupboard that have generated an obscurantist and totalitarian Islam, such as the one which was applied in Qatar and Saudi Arabia and which was also at the basis of the Muslim Brotherhood ideology.
It is that stream of Islam that had as its great chief ideologist first Muhammad Ibn Abd al Wahab in the XVIII century and then Sayyid Qutb in Egypt at the time of Nasser – who sentenced him to death -, and is today at the basis of the thought and doctrine of al Baghdadi’s, the self-proclaimed caliph of the pretended “Islamic state”.
After the prophet’s death, Islam split into two schools: “on the one hand there were the rationalists, those who said the Koran ia a metaphorical text, to be read intelligently, and that should not be taken literally; on the other hand there were the literalists, those tho strongfully asserted that there is only one reading method, the literal one, without any distance and interpretation. Discussions were lengthy and violent, but unfortunately it was the literalists who won”. And this is hence the cultural challenge that Muslims need to tackle to create a modern and secular Islam.
Ben Jelloun regrets a great cultural void in the Muslim world, the lack of intellectuals who can be a reference point to oppose obscurantist ideology and strengthen the need for modernity which is the aim of the majority of the Muslims who live in Europe.
“Nowhere a theological rejection of the absurd theses of the ISIS that envisage a return to the Middle Ages has received much support. To knock down these theses we should impose a rational, clever and open-minded reading, both of the Koran and of the Prophet’s maxims. The work on Islam should be scientifically, historically and rationally grounded. But where are the solid and determined intellectuals able to rightfully represent Islam and the Muslims?”.
Today’s terrorists though are not only obscurantists who look at the Sharia laws as applied by the calyph, but they have introduced dynamics that are poisoning our societies.
The first one is the idea of holy war referring to the Muslim concept of jihad. This word, explains Ben Jelloun to his daughter, should express in times of peace the effort every human being should exert on himself to improve himself and be a good Muslim who fights for good and against ingiustice. Jihad is a peaceful idea of personal commitment that we can find in all faiths, or even in classical philosophy as men were asked to practice virtue.
Instead, terrorists only think of when, in times of war, Mohammed incited his people to practice the jihad for Islam’s victory against its enemies. Then the Prophet expressed himself in a contradictory way. On the one hand in one hadit (the collection of maxims) it was said that the Prophet invited Muslims to be merciful at war: “Go –in the name of God. Fight the enemies of God, who are your enemies. In Syria you will find monks who live in their cells far from war, do not disturb them. You will find warriors destined to Satan, fight them with your swords. Do not kill any women, nor children, nor elders. Do not rip either palms or trees. Do not destroy any home”.In another part of the Hadit, in sura 4 of verse 90 of the Koran, he was instead a lot more drastic: “Kill the infidels where you find them. Capture them, submit them and be alert”. But what is the meaning of decontextualizing an episode happened at the time of the Medina to impose it to us in our time? Asks himself Ben Jelloun.Today, in democratic life, it makes no sense to talk about holy war, as everybody can freely chose their religion. And why should a religion be imposed on others by the means of war?
There is though an even more disquieting feature in the ideology of terrorists. They have given up thinking of life improvement, as tells Yasmina Kadra in his beautiful book The attack, and only look at a perfect world after death. Thus to them, life in itself does make no sense, as the only possible happiness is the one we can achieve in a phantom paradise after death. The paradox is that they are persuaded that by killing the highest number of miscreants they will be able to pay tribute to God and then find their way to happiness.
“To them death is a sort of an apotheosis, the full and complete attainment of a goal. Those who reach it through jihad experience an infinite joy, as reaching death they ensure they will have a pathway to paradise”.
Ben Jelloun explains his daughter how in Islam it is said that believers can aim at entering the house of God, “where his Mercy is expressed and the faithful is in perfect harmony with the spirit of peace, the inner peace and thus Islam”. In many religions, the idea of paradise is really an incentive to virtuously lead our human lives. It is the crowning of human efforts in search for a better life.
In classical philosophy, it is taught that the maturation of the human being, such as in the training oneselves to die of Plato, means going through a pathway that leads you to lift yourself from your own particular to the universal, to look at the world and find the strength to judge not from your ego, but from the others’ point of view. This is the teaching of Baruch Spinoza, who urges men to feel themselves as a part of the whole, as a ring in the chain of the very substance that molders nature and all human beings. This is the inner peace, at which the virtuous man can aim. The jihadists’ paradise has nothing to do with all this. It is the realization of hell. Their “heaven” is instead a kind of a nirvana to escape any kind of responsibility in the world. Thet love death to escape any commitment in life. And when you reject the world, it becomes legit and even pleasant to kill as many human beings as you can. That kind of paradise becomes the alibi not to feel any mercy toward the others and become assassins. They imagine God will reward them for destroying the joyful places of living together and human plurality, which for the terrorists represent the symbols of human decadence.
That kind of heaven then becomes the projection of the worst sexist instinct. They will find women at their disposal to satisfy their own sexual urges, after having to face in their everyday lives with a female resistance and growing unwillingness to accepting a role of subjection to the male power. In the life in their paradise the return to the object woman that the imposition of veils and burqas has never anyway succeeded in imposing totally is fully recomposed.
Replacing the human survival instinct with the pleasure of death does not only allow them to do the most brutal deeds, but makes them also euphorical in the whole time lag that precedes their actions. They feel heroes in front of their enemies, their girlfriends like them, they paradoxically find a social role again and finally feel they are someone, after a life that until little time ago was full of failures and had never found a meaning. This is why they are enthusiastic about telling in their videos on Facebook what their upcoming actions are going to be like. The days before their death are for the terrorists the moments of their ephemeral glory.
Ben Jelloun also faces what is a repressed and often troublesome theme in the Arab world. The hatred of political Islam toward Jews. It is not by chance that terrorists in France like in Brussels have attacked schools, museums, and meeting places of Judaism. On the wake of the teaching of the madrasses, funded by Saudi Arabia and the wahabites, the idea was affirmed that the great enemy of Islam is precisely the Jewish world.
They have taken as a pretext a conflict narrated in the Koran when, from 622 and 632, Jews were accused of breaking a bond with the Prophet. So from this episode – never put in context, as hundreds conflicts told in the Bible and Gospels could be like –the idea was drawn that the holy war against Jews is legitimate. So it was forgotten how the relations between the Jews and Muslims, who lived together in Andalusia until the XV century and paved the way for the welcoming of Jews in the Muslim world after the Spanish Inquisition, were much better than now.
To break with these prejudices – which have often poisoned the relations between the believers of both religions and have led Merah, Nemmouche and Coulibaly to carry out massacres of Jews - Ben Jelloun proposes a common struggle against terrorism. “Muslims and Jews should agree to fight fundamentalism together, because the hate of Jews and the hate of Muslims are similar to each other. An in-depth work about it needs be done. It will not be easy”.
Ben Jellun, albeit not approving and instead condemning it, makes a distinction between Palestinian terror and the jihadist one that carries out its actions in the West and the Arab countries. The foemer would stem from an unresolved conflict, while the latter would be the expression of a nihilist and destroying ideology.If we want Jews and Muslim to be able and start a common pathway, it is though necessary that every kind of terrorism randomly hitting people, both in Jerusalem and in Paris. is condemned.
After Gandhi and Mandela, the value of non-violence, also in the most difficult situations, should become a common pathway not only of Arabs and Jews, but also of Western people, as Tzvetan Todorov affirmed in his editorial will Insoumis (the resistants). Terrorism corrupts and dehumanizes people, not only those who dream of the Islamic apocalypse, but also those who politically exploit it.
This is a complex problems to address, but an example of how to proceed comes precisely from Israel, where for the first time since the outbreak of the conflict, in Neve Shalom, an Arab-Israeli village, an Arab was honoured, who with great bravery saved dozens human lives during a terror attack. It may seem paradoxical, but the greatest kind of sharing a common resistance against terrorism can pave the way not only to the marginalization of jihadists, but also to start a democratic process in the most obscurantist countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, and also for the resolution of complicated conflicts such as the one between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Ben Jelloun tries to offer his daughter the loftiest moral teaching of Islam, around which it couls be possible to carry out a great cultural battle against the jihadists and find again the pride of being Muslim.
He cites three key topics.
The role of personal responsibility. In Islam, the relationship with God is personal and therefore every person in every situation is called to decide by himself the pathway of good or evil. Secondly, that teaching that is also there in the Bible that whoever kills a man kills the entire world and who decides to save him instead, saves the entire world. Thus not killing is the basis of human coexistence. Thirdly, the Moroccan writer recalls that the Prophet has talked to all human being and has not sought to divide Muslims from the rest of the world.
Verse 28 of sura 34 in facts says: “And we have not sent you if not for the totality of all human beings”, while in another verse the Prophet affirms: “Oh men, I am God’s envoy for all”.
These teaching would seem to suffice to start a great cultural battle against terrorists, from within Islam. The Muslim world though has no religious hierarchy such as the one of the Church, and so in Europe we lack a lofty voice who can express these words, while the most backward imams spreading the most obscurantist concepts have a say.
This is a void that should be filled by the Muslim intellectuals. Ben Jelloun sets an example that should be followed.